I’ve long been intrigued by the interplay between the dark money that fuelled Brexit (amongst other nominally democratic events), and the use of social media to persuade and to influence.
I’m surely not the only person who feels intense disquiet about the use of money to spread lies and misinformation – and the seeming impunity of campaigns which willfully spread those lies to any kind of meaningful sanction.
I’ve come to the conclusion that the amoral position taken by the surveillance capitalism giants – such as Facebook (and by extension, Instagram), and Twitter – has led inexorably to an erosion of the polity in the UK and elsewhere.
I have taken to heart the maxim “be the change you want to see in the world” and have decided to significantly reduce my activity on Twitter. I have already effectively closed my Instagram account, and I closed my Facebook account in 2008.
My decision to reduce my activity on Twitter doesn’t come without cost. It reduces my influence within the networks I spent many years building up. It means that I’m less well informed about many of the things that I care about.
But I’m happy to remove my support for a commercial giant which constantly erodes the protections it offers for user data (this goes double now that we’re leaving the GDPR protection of the European Union). I’ve come to the understanding that every tweet I make, every comment I reply to, every link I post, is adding value to a company which has proved agnostic to the notion of democratic norms.
And I’m simultaneously becoming far more comfortable with a platform which is proving to be a viable alternative, albeit with much more growth needed before it comes close to the social functionality provided by Twitter. That site is toot.wales, and it’s an ‘instance’ of the open-source Mastodon platform.
I wrote about Mastodon a while back for the Institute of Welsh Affairs. TL;DR – it’s a site which duplicates much of the functionality of Twitter, but doesn’t allow advertising, doesn’t harvest your data and has effectively banned sexism, racism and hate speech.
I still have an account on Twitter, and I’ll use it to message people, and to promote my toots on Mastodon. But I reject the notion that I’m a ‘monetizable daily active user‘ with my data at the service of anyone with a chequebook. My ultimate goal is to stop using Twitter altogether, to fully embrace an open, free and respectful way of interacting with others.
Social media has energised the way in which we interact, communicate, promote and understand. As with any tool, it has the ability to be used for good, or for ill.
I don’t intend here to detail the way that social media is used to abuse, to pillory, to demean and to spread hate. Nor is this a treatise about whether it’s democratically healthy for social media to be used by political parties or corporate entities to micro-target individuals or small communities with messages which may only be loosely based on fact, or indeed a complete fiction.
Instead, I want you to take a moment to imagine participating in a social network free from hate; one which doesn’t answer to shareholders; and where paid advertising directed by surveillance capitalism is not possible.
Now I want you to take a step further; I want you to imagine that same network, where you can share a picture (same way as Instagram); share a blog post (same way as Medium); share a micro-blog (same as Twitter); share a video (such as with YouTube) – and all the content from all those different platforms is brought to you in one place.
Hang onto your hats – it’s already here!
Unbeknown to most internet users, there’s a quiet revolution taking place on the fringes of the social web which merits close examination.
Fed up with pleading to Twitter, Facebook, Google and other internet giants to take action on abuse and to act on genuine privacy concerns, the open source community has created solutions which herald the dawning of a new era of accountable social media.
And Wales could be at the vanguard of this revolution, thanks partly to some imagination and drive from a boy from Barry who made it in New York, Jaz-Michael King.
Before diving into how to join the revolution, it’s worth talking about how the Federated Universe (Fediverse) operates.
Unlike the existing social media monopolies, the Fediverse has no central company controlling the flow of content, and deciding what to permit or ban.
Instead, there’s a plethora of small sites – ‘Instances’ – which operate semi-autonomously from one another, but which are linked (federated) so that content can be viewed simultaneously on all federated platforms. Authors retain ownership and control of their content, while citizens can pick and choose the content and people they wish to connect with, free from profit-driven algorithms and their associated echo chambers.
So somebody posting a photo on Pixelfed (a federated photo-sharing site, which looks and feels just like Instagram) will instantly share that image with all their followers, on whatever ‘Instance’ they’re based.
Likewise, someone posting a micro-blog on a federated account (such as Mastodon) will share that post with all their followers across all whole ‘Fediverse’.
No more hate?
Whilst it would be a stretch to say that hate has no place within the Fediverse, it’s certainly no exaggeration to say that it is a far more pleasant place than most conventional social networks.
That’s because most Instances have rules which forbid unpleasant behaviour. The decision about what constitutes acceptable behaviour is up to the administrators or the community of that individual Instance, but if unpleasant behaviour consistently appears unchallenged on a specific Instance, it’s possible that all other Instances could sever ties, effectively inoculating the rest of the Fediverse from the content that’s being posted in the ‘bad’ Instance.
Indeed this has already happened in July this year, where an Instance supporting far-right speech was blackballed by many other instances, significantly limiting its ability to interact with the rest of the Fediverse. The success and growth of the Federation as a movement has been significantly driven by the growing dissatisfaction and loss of trust that the international corporate networks cannot (or will not) manage, and that smaller, locally-driven communities are more able to effectively self-manage.
So – how could Wales be leading the charge?
Enter Toot.Wales, the brainchild of émigré Jaz-Michael King. Toot.Wales is Wales’ own instance of the micro-blogging site Mastodon. Fully bilingual by default, it is also on the verge of deploying its first mobile app for Android (with ios development underway).
I often see people on Twitter complaining about certain functionalities not being available, including the most basic need for a Welsh language interface; about tools to control or limit abuse, about access to one’s own data and the right to delete it or download it.
My response is: leave the network. The influence we have with the owners of Twitter, Facebook or any other mainstream social media platform is vanishingly small. If complaints by users have implications on profit, they are unlikely to become a corporate priority. Regulation is possible, but is cumbersome, hard to enforce and likely to date quickly.
So we must vote with our feet. We have within our own hands, literally and metaphorically, the means to turn our backs on networks which value profit over privacy, and to champion an open source ethical alternative.
I believe that Wales can demonstrate to the rest of the world that it’s possible to take a stance on this issue. Already facing a crisis in media, we should no longer submit to the whims of global corporate giants. With so much of the information we receive being more or less completely out of the control of the people of Wales, this is one area where we genuinely can, and we should, be taking back control.
I’ve been a big fan of the open source movement for many years. I can probably trace my interest back to at least 2003, which was the year I first installed the Thunderbird email software, followed a year later by experimenting with Ubuntu as the operating system for my laptop.
I think I would describe the experience as ‘not for the faint-hearted’ back then, but over the last fifteen years, the open source movement has taken incredible steps. Open source software now runs most of the world’s IT infrastructure, most household hardware devices and is continuing to develop apace. Ubuntu is now the only operating system that I use on my laptop. Free, fast and fully functional. I love it.
My awareness of open source issues has increased in line with my growing concern about the nature of ‘big data’ harvesting by corporations, with the expectation and intent of profit gained by using that data in amoral ways.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal is one concrete example of how democracy itself is at risk from a cynical, cavalier use of personal data, which even now far outpaces the attempts of individual governments to regulate and control it.
Like many people, I’ve had an Instagram account for years (a reminder – Instagram is owned by Facebook). Perhaps not a mega-keen user, but certainly uploaded plenty of photos, and presumably with a whole bunch of my personal data.
Today that’s ended. I’ve been experimenting with a new, open source platform for photo sharing called ‘Pixelfed’. It’s similar in look and feel to Instagram, and in rapid development. Unlike Instagram, there’s no way that your personal data can be used to sell advertising or to shift election results. It’s as wholesome a product as you can find within the photo-sharing space.
My experiment with the open source, distributed world isn’t restricted to photos. I’m also reasonably active on Mastadon, a federated version of Twitter which (like Pixelfed) does not collect data in order to derive financial gain. There’s even a Welsh version of Mastadon which connects to all the other users around the world, but is focused on the people and communities of Wales (my thanks to Jaz Michael-King for that!)
I believe that the open source movement has a huge amount to offer the people of Wales (and of course everyone else). The open source movement is transparent, offers low-cost, customisable solutions, and exhibits a number of values which overlap with the Well-being of Future Generations.
If Wales embraced the open source movement, I think we would save money, while simultaneously supporting our citizens to become more highly trained, more aware and more resilient. And by contributing code to the global commons, we would certainly be playing an even greater role in our quest to be a globally responsible country.
I’m currently thinking about how best to promote this issue in Wales – potentially with something like a draft open source manifesto – and I welcome fellow collaborators who’d like to work with me. I think that together we could build a movement to celebrate and benefit from the open source community, and at the same time take back a little bit of the control that we have ceded to the data giants.